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Annual Audit Delves Into NASA Science Portfolio Tensions

JUN 05, 2023
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture
dragonfly-illustration.jpg

The Government Accountability Office’s annual report on NASA’s major projects states that the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan has been deferring work due to tight funding and is in danger of incurring a new schedule delay.

(Steve Gribben / Johns Hopkins APL / NASA)

Last week, the Government Accountability Office released its annual audit of NASA’s major projects, which tracks cost growth, schedule delays, and technical risks that large-budget missions are facing ahead of launch.

GAO notes there have been few new problems reported on the agency’s most delayed and over-budget activities, but it also spotlights signs of creeping trouble within the Science Mission Directorate, where the Mars Sample Return mission’s ballooning budget is diverting funding from other efforts.

NASA has not released its cost estimates for MSR, but GAO reports the mission was projected to cost between $5.9 billion and $6.2 billion when it passed an early management milestone last September, whereas the 2022 planetary science decadal survey anticipated MSR would cost $5.3 billion. Costs for MSR remain in flux, and two weeks ago an independent review board started assessing NASA’s plans for the mission ahead of its confirmation review, when the agency will set a firm baseline cost estimate.

Other science activities under pressure include the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, which is set to cost more than $2 billion. Officials told GAO that Dragonfly’s annual budgets have lagged “optimal” levels, leading some work to be deferred, and that a delay to the mission’s anticipated 2027 launch is “likely” if its planned spending profile is not met. Mission leader Zibi Turtle recently indicated that the $328 million NASA has proposed for fiscal year 2024 would fall short.

GAO further states that costs stemming from last year’s one-year delay in the launch of the roughly $1 billion Psyche asteroid mission amount to $132 million, not counting potential increases for the mission’s operating phase that are still being assessed. Last November, an independent review linked Psyche’s delay to staffing shortages at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is developing Psyche, MSR, and several other missions, and agency officials are presenting a follow-up report to the public on Monday this week.

GAO reports that another JPL mission, the $5 billion Europa Clipper, is tracking risks to its October 2024 launch date stemming from an inability to transition needed workforce from Psyche. The Clipper would have to wait a full year for its next launch opportunity.

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